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The pressure to go green has never been greater, with countries around the world implementing new laws and regulations to speed the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Here in Canada, the federal government recently unveiled a target of 100-per-cent zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035. While it’s arguable if this timeline is feasible, the announcement itself reflects the growing global trend.

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You can’t make something from nothing, of course. Clean energy technologies — whether EVs, wind turbines, solar panels, or battery storage — require such inputs as lithium, cobalt, and copper. Unlike most countries, Canada is blessed with an abundance of these minerals and metals. The challenge is getting them out of the ground.

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With the average project typically taking 12 to 15 years to get up and running, Canada is a notoriously difficult environment for mining. The federal government has said it’s looking to change that, aiming to reduce the timeline down to five or six years.

There are glimmers of hope that the federal government is serious. In December 2021, they announced a strategy to increase the supply of critical minerals and support the development of domestic and global value chains for the green and digital economy (Alberta beat them to the punch by more than a year with its own strategy). Ottawa’s plan includes funding initiatives to align Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial approaches to mining regulations and permitting and help project proponents navigate regulatory processes.

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Beyond regulations, infrastructure, and R & D, the strategy also addresses perhaps the most pressing issue of all — the skilled labour shortage. If we can’t get more work boots on the ground, Canada’s critical mineral mother lode will remain underground and our clean energy potential will go untapped.

These aren’t the only sectors under threat. According to one eye-opening report, Canada’s economy lost almost $13 billion in 2022 because of the labour and skills shortage in the manufacturing sector. The Canadian Manufacturers’ survey found that nearly two-thirds of manufacturers had lost or turned down contracts and experienced production delays due to a lack of key workers such as machinists and welders.

If manufacturers can’t find the skilled workers they need in Canada, more and more will relocate their operations south of the border where they can. To stanch the loss of our manufacturing base — and damage to our other economic sectors — Canadian lawmakers need to take action on two fronts.

First, they need to combat the stigma of choosing trade school over university. Acquiring a trade is a sure-fire way to get a secure, good-paying job (an entry-level welder can earn $120,000 a year). What’s more, these jobs are often gateways to even better-paying, more senior jobs like project manager. The Alberta government’s awareness-raising initiatives aimed at junior high and high school students are important steps in the right direction.

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Second, governments need to build the right education and training infrastructure. Alberta is fortunate to have some of the best polytechnics in the country, but their aging facilities are increasingly inadequate for the job at hand. As with almost everything else, technology is transforming the skilled trades. Bricks and mortar are no longer good enough. What’s needed are facilities that integrate new technologies and interdisciplinary workspaces to train the workforce Alberta’s evolving economy needs.

The province’s leading polytechnic has developed a proposed project that will do both. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s proposed Advanced Skills Centre (ASC) will be without equal in Canada. Featuring 640,000 square feet of state-of-the-art trades and technology learning space, the ASC will train 4,200 more apprentices across four industry sectors — advanced manufacturing, construction, energy, and transportation — annually. What’s more, the ASC had been designed in partnership with industry to ensure students graduate with market-ready skills.

In a labour market desperate for skilled workers, this new training capacity will prove critical. The Alberta Advantage is alive and well, but if we don’t get more Albertans into the skilled trades — and soon — the province’s potential will go unrealized.

Craig E. Harder is the CEO and founder of Raptor Mining, which is headquartered in Edmonton. 

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